Moving On

[Note: The following was first published in the December 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Knowing when to end something you’ve enjoyed doing can be difficult to do. Although I have enjoyed writing Rubs, Scrapes and Tangle these last 19 years, I feel it’s time to move on to other pursuits and projects. So this is my last column. I will continue to write, but having to meet a monthly deadline takes a toll on some of the other things I want to do, both as a writer and citizen.

2014-09 Meredith-BushTrail

The protection of habitat and wild country should be the number one concern of all conservationists.

It’s been a great 19-year run. I thank Rob Miskosky for offering me this opportunity and sticking with me when at times the going got tough. Rob and I sometimes didn’t agree on issues but he never denied my right to express my opinions as long as I could back them up. Indeed, I think that is one of the main reasons this magazine has been so successful: Rob isn’t afraid to publish a wide range of subjects and opinions.

I thank my fellow AO writers as well as members of the Outdoor Writers of Canada for their support, encouragement and suggestions. We outdoor writers are a small group, but we all share similar passions for fish, wildlife and wild places. Most important, we enjoy writing about it and encouraging that passion in others.

I also thank you the reader for keeping me on my toes. Your feedback, either through the magazine, my blog or in person, helped me understand what was concerning you and whether or not I was on track. A few of you didn’t like some of the things I wrote and let me know. Feedback is important to a writer, and negative feedback can be just as important as positive, especially if you are respectful and back up what you say. And yes, you caught me a few times not doing my “due diligence.” It has indeed been a learning experience.

Before moving on, I want to list some of my concerns for Alberta and its wild heritage. Those of you who have been following this column can guess what these are.

Habitat and Wild Places
Habitat has always been and always will be a major concern for fish and wildlife managers. All living creatures require a place to live, where they can find food, shelter and escape from predators, all within a reasonable distance of one another. In 1980 that reality was represented by the creation of the Habitat Protection and Management Branch in the now defunct Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division. That branch survived into the 1990s before succumbing to a flurry of department reorganizations and budget cuts. During that time the branch did a lot of important work in both fisheries and wildlife habitat enhancement and protection, often partnering with conservation organizations, such as the Alberta Fish and Game Association, Ducks Unlimited and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

The problem was resource extraction companies considered the branch an impediment to what they wanted to do on the landscape. They lobbied government for less stringent regulations requiring them to get projects approved by the habitat branch. The promise of jobs and money talks and it did with the politicians of the day, who decided a habitat branch was not needed. The result was and continues to be habitat degradation. Today, we see hanging culverts at stream crossings—preventing fish from accessing spawning areas and other habitat, vast forestry cut blocks in prime woodland caribou and fur-bearer habitats, and unrestricted use of off-highway vehicles, just to name a few examples.

The shame is that it is possible to have resource extraction while protecting wildlife habitat. You just have to slow down the amount of extraction happening at any one time in any one place, and ensure the extraction that’s done is done in a manner that respects the landscape and the fish and wildlife within it. That requires a government that understands the importance of having viable wild landscapes, the long-term benefits such landscapes can have on the economy, and the willingness to stand up to those who would sacrifice such landscapes for short-term gain.

The Economy or the Environment?
Often when you discuss these issues with politicians, they bring up the importance of jobs and that resource extraction companies create jobs. They argue that some wild places and portions of the environment must be sacrificed to keep people employed. But what many fail to realize is that it is not an either/or proposition. In reality the economy is dependent on a healthy environment. The lands upon which we gather our resources also supply us with clean air, water and our quality of life. Not requiring (and enforcing) resource companies to respect that environment is just plain negligence on the government’s part.

A good example is what is going on with the management of our fisheries. Instead of addressing the considerable habitat destruction that is occurring on our lakes and streams, our fisheries managers talk about restricting access to anglers: closing certain streams, only allowing catch-and-release on other streams and lakes, the latter ignoring the fact that catch-and-release has its own mortality and to my mind disrespects the fish when not taking a few to eat. When are we going to have an honest conversation about what is happening with our fish and wildlife that includes habitat issues and the true value of natural areas? Only when we respect the land, will we truly have a viable future in this province.

Climate Change and the Future
Anybody who has read this column more than a few times knows my stance on climate change: it’s real, it’s happening now and we humans are the primary cause. The science is indisputable despite what people hear from alleged news sources that have bought into the misinformation fostered by certain petroleum companies and some of their investors.

The real question we must face is what are we going to do about it. The current government has initiated a climate change strategy that is a giant step toward reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we are emitting into our environment. It’s not near far enough but it’s a start. Reducing greenhouse gases is important but, as I’ve related here before, the results of those reductions will not come into effect for 30 or more years. What awaits us within the next 30 years as a result of the emissions over the last 100 years? Neighbouring jurisdictions, like BC and Montana, have given us some ideas of what’s to come, and it isn’t pretty.

One thing is certain: We’re soon going to learn just how important the environment is to our economy and how we work, live and recreate. Wild fires and severe storms are just the beginning.

But it need not be so gloomy if our governments can start planning for the adaptations that must take place. We outdoors people are and will be the first to see these changes on the landscape. We should also be the first to report them to others.

That’s enough from me. Once again, thank you for putting up with me all these years. Although I’m moving on, it won’t be far. I will continue to write and photograph, posting some to this blog, my website and elsewhere. I welcome your feedback!

Merry Christmas and the Best of the New Year to all!

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, Climate Change, Conservation, Environment, Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Where There’s Smoke…

[Note: The following was first published in the November 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Ever since I first witnessed a dark sky on a clear night away from urban light pollution, I’ve always been fascinated with astronomy. On seeing the Milky Way and the myriad stars and planets, I can’t help but be enthralled with the vastness of our universe, our extremely small place in it and the processes that brought us to where we are. That’s why when I first heard about the total eclipse of the sun that would cross the United States this last August 21st I knew I had to witness the phenomenon.

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Totality during he solar eclipse in Wyoming. Fortunately, the wildfire smoke above us wasn’t as thick as it was around us.

One of the better places to view the total eclipse was Wyoming, straight south of Alberta. It had the best chance for a clear sky. Sure enough, when Betty and I arrived at our appointed location in the desert east of Shoshoni early in the morning of the 21st, the sky looked promising, although a few high level clouds did cause some worry. Also of concern was the wildfire smoke in the air that was visible all around us. However, by the time the eclipse got underway, the clouds had dissipated and the smoke between the sun overhead and us was not as thick as it was looking at the horizon. As a result, we had an excellent experience that will not be forgotten.

Also not easily forgotten was the wildfire smoke we experienced throughout our trip. Since driving to the eclipse site was going to take a couple of days and the crossing of a border, we decided to make an extended trip out of it. At first we planned to do some river rafting and fly fishing with friends in Missoula Montana before the eclipse. But as the date approached, our friends informed us that fishing had been closed as a result of warm river water and the thick smoke from local wildfires was impacting outdoor activities. They recommended we postpone that adventure until another time. So, we bypassed western Montana but not the smoke and smell of fire.

After the eclipse, we headed for Grand Teton National Park to continue our tour of the west. Slowly passing through traffic jams as a result of the thousands of eclipse watchers moving on to other places, we finally arrived at the park to see the spectacular views of the Teton Range shrouded in smoke from wildfires in Wyoming and Idaho. When we crossed into Utah and Nevada the following days, smoke was always on the horizon.

Our next stop was Yosemite National Park in California. Yosemite was one of my favorite stomping grounds in my youth. I’ve hiked many of its trails, including the John Muir Trail that starts there. Betty had not seen the park before and I didn’t want her to pass up a chance to experience Yosemite Valley. The spectacular granite domes and monoliths that tower over the valley are somewhat like a dark night sky or solar eclipse; they must be experienced to be appreciated.

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Half Dome and the other iconic granite monoliths of Yosemite Valley were shrouded in smoke this summer.

But alas, smoke plagued the valley just like it had in Alberta, Montana and Wyoming. However, this wasn’t smoke from wildfires but smoke from “management fires.” The park service was burning sections of Yosemite’s forest to reduce the amount of fuel on the ground. In 2016 Yosemite had been threatened by large wildfires west of the park as a result of several years of drought in California. This year wasn’t quite as bad but it still was dry, campfire bans were in effect and the forests were threatened by the large amount of dead, dry wood.

That’s not to say we didn’t see the sights. We did and enjoyed our visit. Indeed, the smoke made for some interesting photographs, though nothing like we’d hoped.

Our trip continued on to the Oregon coast where we had hoped to get out of the smoke and enjoy some of the state’s spectacular beaches. But on crossing the Coast Range we found the smoke to be thicker, obscuring much of the coast’s features. It turned out there was a wildfire in the south Coast Range that was threatening communities and casting smoke up the coast.

That and the smoke of several fires in the Cascade Mountains to the east plagued us all the way through Washington State and into British Columbia. Of course, BC had its worst fire season in history this summer. Fortunately the smoke from those fires had largely dissipated by the time we got there, as cooler and moister weather brought some needed relief. Although Alberta had its share of wildfires this summer, it was nowhere near what BC had endured if you don’t count the fire that came over the divide burning a good portion of Waterton Lakes National Park and some of the Castle region.

It was indeed a fire season for the record books all across western North America. But so were the fire seasons of previous summers in many jurisdictions. What we are most likely seeing is the new normal for summers as climate change keeps on coming. Fire seasons are getting longer and fires more robust.

A few years back I did some research for Parks Canada on what the recent scientific literature was saying about the future of some of our parks with regard to the changing climate. Several of the papers reported that fire would be one of the major agents of change, taking down forests and making room for new growth that might not include the same species of plants that had been there before. Several scenarios predicted that grasslands would replace many forests in the drier eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains as well as those of the parkland and boreal regions of our north. Many parks in the U.S., Russia and Canada, especially in the far north, were already reporting large-scale changes to vegetation: treeline moving up in elevation in the mountains, shrubs and trees invading arctic tundra where they’ve not been seen before. As well, these changes are affecting the movements of migratory animals, such as caribou.

Back in February of 2016, I wrote in this column about the Montana Wildlife Federation 2015 report “The Impact of Climate Change on Montana’s Outdoor Economy” that described how Montana’s economy, and especially its outdoor economy, was and will be negatively affected by climate change. It was a sobering report designed to help governments, businesses and individuals plan for the future.

This year the Montana Institute on Ecosystems (Montana University System) issued its 2017 Montana Climate Assessment. This report focussed on the future of Montana’s water, forests and agriculture. It predicts that Montana’s snowpack will lessen, shifting stream flows and raising water temperatures—all affecting the fish species that currently inhabit those waters. Changes in precipitation will likewise negatively affect both forests and agriculture. The report recommends immediate remedial actions to reduce wildfire risks, plan for less productivity in both forestry and agriculture, and that producers diversify their operations to adapt to the changes.

So far, we haven’t seen a similar report here in Alberta; although it’s not hard to extrapolate what’s predicted for Montana to Alberta. One thing is for sure: climate change is here and the coming changes will be dramatic. The smoke we’ve all witnessed this summer is speaking to us loud and clear. Change is happening and we’re going to have to adapt.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Nickel and Diming Outdoor Rights

[Note: The following was first published in the October 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Back in May of 2008 the Legislative Assembly of Alberta passed Bill 201, the Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Heritage Act. There was a lot of fanfare and pats on the back in the hunting, fishing and trapping communities because their lobbying to enshrine these rights into law had finally paid off.

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A piece of legislation doesn’t protect our rights unless our governments have the will to enforce it.

The bill is simple enough, only one page of text. After the preamble of requisite whereas statements outlining the role of hunting, fishing and trapping in Alberta’s heritage, wildlife conservation and the needs of future generations, the bill lists only two sections. Section 1 states that “A person has a right to hunt, fish and trap in accordance with the law” and that law includes “the Wildlife Act, the Fisheries Act (Canada), the Migratory Birds Convention Act (Canada) and the regulations made under those Acts.” Section 2 states “Nothing in this Act derogates from any aboriginal right to hunt, fish or trap.”

And that’s it—short and sweet with no confusing cross-references to obscure subsections pages away or in other bills, as often found in legislation. Indeed, the private member’s bill (introduced by the late Len Mitzel) received royal assent less than a month after first reading in the legislature—not an easy feat for any piece of legislation, let alone a private member’s bill. It passed so quickly because there was little or no debate, as the bill was stating what was already a fact in the province: people can hunt, fish and trap, provided they do so lawfully. In reality it was a “motherhood” statement that was now cast into law.

But was it enough? If you read the bill carefully, you realize the legislation does not prevent specific hunting, fishing and trapping rights being taken away through changes to the mentioned provincial and federal acts and regulations. For example, the right to hunt grizzly bears or catch and keep bull trout was taken away via a regulation change. Those and other changes didn’t take away your overall right to hunt or fish, just your right to hunt or fish certain species or in certain locations. If we are indeed to lose our right to hunt, fish or trap, it will most likely occur piecemeal as the government closes the season for each species that can no longer sustain a harvest. In effect, we have already seen that in our fishing regulations. In many water bodies, we can no longer harvest fish. As well, a succeeding government could rescind the bill by the passage of another act. So, while it was good to have our legislature recognize hunting, fishing and trapping as legitimate activities, Bill 201 didn’t provide any real protection for those activities.

2006-09 Meredith-KeithCallingMoose

If we truly want to protect our right to hunt, fish and trap, we need to protect the wild areas that produce game, fish, furbearers and species-at-risk.

What would provide that protection? In my opinion, a better piece of legislation would have also guaranteed the protection of sufficient wild spaces that support diverse ecosystems (i.e., biodiversity) including viable populations of fish, game and furbearers, such that fishing, hunting and trapping in these areas can be sustained. Of course, such legislation would not have passed quite as quickly, but the debate might have educated the legislators in what is needed to sustain a valuable heritage, and that maybe exploitation of our resources needs to be slowed to accommodate that heritage.

The problem with any legislation is that it is only as good as the will to enforce it. As pointed out in Lorne Fitch’s essay, “A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou? (July 2017), there are already numerous pieces of legislation and agreements between various governments to protect and maintain biodiversity, including species-at-risk. But where the boots hit the ground, governments are reluctant to enforce those rules for fear of slowing the economy.

One of the best examples is this province’s treatment of woodland caribou, a threatened species that used to be hunted. Despite ample warnings that this iconic species was in trouble, the province granted rights to forestry and petroleum companies to mow down the animal’s prime winter habitat. Then in a desperate bid to show the federal government that they were doing something to protect the caribou, expensive programs to eradicate wolves and reduce moose numbers were employed in the area where the most distressed herds are found. Meanwhile the resource companies continued to tear down the one thing the caribou need to survive: their habitat. The lesson continues not to be learned. If you want a diverse economy and a high quality of life, then you must preserve sufficient wildlands. What’s sufficient? How about protecting enough wildlands to sustain hunting, fishing and trapping, and maintain species-at-risk?

Why are species-at-risk so important? As Fitch stated in his essay, and I’ve said several times in this space, it’s because species-at-risk are the “canaries in the coal mine.” Their impending demise is telling us that our ecosystems (that support all life, including us) are in trouble.

To be fair, our current government has been attempting to provide more protection for our wildlands. The creation of the Castle parks was a good step in the right direction (and despite what you hear, you can still hunt and fish there). But there is still a lot more to do to roll back the damage that previous governments allowed to happen, especially in our headwater areas and the woodland caribou ranges in our north.

Last year, the government announced its plans for woodland caribou, and especially for the two most critical herds (if you don’t count the oil sands herds), the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds. Again, the plans were positive steps forward, especially for the herds in the northwest and north-central portions of the province. However, as I mentioned in my August 2016 column, the plans for the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds (near Grande Cache) are woefully insufficient. Having to depend on a wolf cull and a “caribou rearing facility” to restore the herd, while we wait the 100 or more years for the habitat to grow back after the forestry and oil companies finish their work, is truly a non-starter.

As Lorne Fitch facetiously suggested, perhaps it’s time to write the caribou off and let the business of resource exploitation continue unabated. But that would just continue the nickel and diming away of our right to have wild places and benefit from the species that occupy those places. When we lose a species, we lose a part of what makes us whole as human beings. As ecosystems lose their diversity, they also lose their ability to cope with change, such as the change that is happening with our climate. If we want to continue to have a diverse choice of outdoor experiences, we need to be protecting a diversity of wild landscapes and environments.

Perhaps it is time for the government to start asking its citizens just what kind of Alberta they want to see in the next decades. With our continuing human population growth, climate change and a limited amount of resources, we need to see a vision of the future that goes beyond four years. We need to see how we are going to cope with the coming changes while holding on to what we value in terms of our heritage and human experience. Instead of nickel and diming our rights away, maybe we should be investing in them.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta, Alberta Outdoorsmen, Canada, Conservation, Environment, Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fisheries Management: Complex, Complicated and Poorly Comprehended

Guest Blog: Alberta Environment and Parks is proposing plans to recover native trout in Alberta’s Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The plans call for the closing of fishing along many streams to allow the trout populations to recover. However, many anglers and conservation groups are concerned that little is mentioned in the plans about curtailing the ongoing habitat destruction that is occurring. In the following essay biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) explains why fisheries management is so complex and why we should not blame the biologists but the politicians. Loren’s previous essays posted here include: “A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou?The Inequity of “Balance”Tracks and SpurMyths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use and Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish.

Fisheries Management: Complex,Complicated and Poorly Comprehended
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2017

Fisheries management isn’t rocket scienceit’s vastly more complicated. Divining information on how fish live, their habitat requirements and their status is, by no means, simple. “Counting fish is just like counting trees — except that they are invisible and keep moving,” says John Shepherd of the University of South Hampton. What we do know about the fisheries of the watersheds of the Eastern Slopes is that westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout, Athabasca rainbows and Arctic grayling populations are all in trouble. Mountain whitefish populations may be as well.

Fisheries collapsed before there was the province of Alberta and before the advent of fisheries biologists. A natural calamity might wipe out fish populations in a segment of a watershed. Connectivity, the ability of fish to move freely within and between watersheds allowed populations to re-establish. Any lake with a fur trading post had both an awesome and unsustainable tonnage of fish removed. In those simpler times, without the added footprint of development, cessation of fishing resulted in a rebound of fish populations. It is not as simple anymore with the double whammy of angling pressure and habitat loss.

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A healthy riparian habitat is crucial to sustaining fish populations.

Every living thing eventually dies, except zombies perhaps, and does so from the extreme risk of youth, to the stagnation of middle age and the acceleration in old age. Fish begin dying as eggs lain in the stream gravels; only a tiny fraction will survive to the fry stage. Young fish suffer death from competition over food and space. All age classes will suffer predation from kingfishers, mergansers, mink and bigger fish. Non-native trout compete with the natives for resources and may hybridize, reducing fitness for survival. Fish are tested every day within the dynamic systems they live, by flood, drought, fires, landslides and cold snaps that can freeze streams down to the rocks.

Overlain on this landscape of extreme variability is a land-use footprint that is extensive, expansive and cumulative. For some species of wildlife there is opportunity to prosper with some types of land use. For fish, any land use footprint increases the risk to populations and often results in declines. An additional complication is the impact of human-induced climate change, especially on water temperatures. Therein lies the conundrum for fish, and for fisheries biologists to manage populations with the combination of a natural range of variability and human-induced cumulative effects.

A contributing problem is we lack benchmarks for healthy, abundant fish populations so it is difficult to know what is in the realm of the possible. If there is a watershed in Alberta that still contains historic levels of trout, it must be well hidden and virtually inaccessible.

Many people have become so inured to the damage in our watersheds it becomes difficult to see that essential riparian buffers have become too thin and are unhealthy. Beyond the riparian zone logging has changed the hydrologic regime to produce higher spring flooding followed by less water available in critical times for the summer, fall and winter. This can persist for decades. Too many roads and trails lace watersheds, each a conduit for speeding runoff and acting as silt pumps. Culverts, diversions and dams block upstream passage, dams turn stream habitats into sterile reservoirs and divert water from the system. Many streams are subject to excess nutrients, herbicides, pesticides, selenium, mercury and pharmaceuticals.

If overwintering pools fill with sediment, mud coats and permeates spawning and rearing gravels that also produce fish food; algae growths rob the stream of oxygen and critical overwinter flows are too low; and no amount of tinkering with angling regulations will successfully restore trout populations. Until we address the fundamental, underlying problems related to our historic and current land use decisions, fish populations don’t have a ghost of a chance of recovery.

Today, the trout of the Eastern Slopes are not dying exclusively of natural causes. They are bleeding to death from a thousand cuts inflicted upon them by us.

So, when it comes to declines in fish populations and the need to recover them, fisheries biologists are first in line to have the cross hairs of outrageous fortune targeted on them. Everyone seems to have an opinion, generally contrary to the management strategy offered by biologists. Most are fixated on their corner of the fishing world and on their particular desires. Because of the phenomena of shifting benchmarks many cannot believe we have a fish crisis. This can include bureaucrats who haven’t studied history or reviewed archival photographs.

Anglers may carry a fishing rod and have fishing experiences but fisheries biologists wield some truths about fish. A fundamental one is that land use has changed the watersheds fish live in, sometimes irrevocably. Another one is, all angling results in fish mortality, either intentionally through legitimate creel limits, or illegal poaching. Even catch and release fishing causes a collateral mortality. In some watersheds trout may be vulnerable to any level of angling related mortality because of a depressed population size.

We are now at a point where we have traded off healthy, sustainable fish populations for economic development. If anglers and others sense this imbalance has robbed them of recreational opportunity and of watersheds of health and resilience they should start addressing the issue with their elected representatives. Blaming fisheries biologists for scuttling your angling pleasure (and freedom) is as nonsensical as blaming your doctor for your misspent youth.

Today’s fisheries biologists are also anglers and got into their profession as a result of their association with the sport. They are kindred spirits.

Their goal is to reverse the negative trends in fish populations as this is job one as articulated in the Fish Conservation and Management Strategy for Alberta. Angling and harvest of fish can only come after the prime directive is met. Yes, data on fish population status is often inconsistent, sparse and dated. In fisheries management the materials are living objects, existing in a dynamic environment. No one condition is uniform from lake to lake, from watershed to watershed and no problem is capable of exact solutions.

If we wait to fill all those gaps, fish populations in some watersheds will surely wink out, not a desirable outcome. That’s why we need to rely on the professional judgement of fisheries biologists who have gathered and assessed what data exists, used it to model responses to various activities. Models are a surrogate for reality, useful for delineating the actions that have the most potential; the test is applying and monitoring the actions at a scale appropriate to the desired population response. Perfect—no; expedient—yes.

To modify an old aphorism slightly, it takes fish to make fish. Natural mortality, loss of critical habitats for spawning, rearing and overwintering plus harvest, incidental, illegal or minimal may create a bottleneck that doesn’t allow a trout population to reach, and exceed a critical mass. But, how does one distinguish which factors or combinations have the greatest influence on populations?

Cumulative effects analysis shows fisheries biologists the likely extent to which habitat or harvest (or both) are the bottlenecks holding population recovery back. It is a systematic way to work out the issues, especially the habitat ones and not look for answers exclusively in modifying angler harvest.

Fisheries biologists are gifted in the application of science, not in the art of communication. If there is a flaw, the debate about fisheries management looks there instead of the science. Better transparency on decisions in fisheries management would be helpful and create a foundation of understanding.

Trout in the Eastern Slopes are subject to many stressors, natural and human-induced. The degree to which a stressor or a combination of stressors impacts a population is intertangled. That complexity needs to be dissected so a realistic response can be undertaken. Will a little bit of intervention work, or does the medicine have to be stronger? Catch and release might be on the level of an aspirin; watershed closure a major painkiller.

Some contend that harvest is essential, to attract and keep a constituency of anglers. The theory is- what you catch and eat you will support and defend. While there may be a kernel of reason in that, killing fish to defend them, especially those species already at risk seems contrarian. We would not consider any level of additional harm to wildlife species deemed at risk, including limited harvest and harassment (which is what catch and release fishing is to an imperiled fish species). A large number of people who are wildlife enthusiasts, vigorously defend wildlife populations even though they do not hunt. Surely we can do the same for fish under circumstances of their imminent demise.

Like a hanging, closure of a watershed focuses one’s attention. Closures are risky; they divert angling attention and pressure onto other trout populations. Among other things, it is a signal that fisheries biologists have done all that is in their power to restore a fish population, and it isn’t enough. In effect fisheries biologists have met their due diligence for species at risk recovery, now the rest of government and industry have to respond. The “hot potato” of decisions on land use to meet a fish recovery strategy now is in another court, where it properly needs to be because, the conservation of fish populations isn’t the sole responsibility of fisheries biologists, nor are they equipped to deal with all the economic and social issues affecting fisheries declines. Fisheries biologists do advocate for better land use decisions through planning and work with other agencies, industry and conservation groups to facilitate solutions to habitat issues.

Fisheries biologists can control a few things: when people angle; where they can angle; how they can angle (tackle used/restrictions); what they can harvest (species, numbers, and sizes); and whether to stock to bolster native populations and/or remove non-native species. What they have no control over includes: the number of anglers (including those under 16 and over 65 who don’t require angling licenses); where anglers fish within areas open to angling; the experience, proficiency and ethics of anglers; how anglers access areas to fish; regulation enforcement; and what anglers find when they reach a fishing spot (e.g. logging, wellsites, polluted water, low stream flow, dams and diversions, compromised riparian health, off highway vehicle (OHV) misuse, gravel mining, random camping…).

Anglers, the conservation community and even those that don’t fish, but want to know someone is looking after their environmental interests need to work together on recovery, recognizing fisheries biologists are their allies, not the enemy. A start would be to recognize the stewardship obligations we all have. Supporting mandatory angler education (especially fish identification) and using our voices to ask elected representatives to prioritize habitat restoration through better land use guidelines, oversight and enforcement would be essential.

It’s time we face the music with fish populations, especially along the Eastern Slopes. The chickens of development and human population pressure have come home to roost. A focus on treating symptoms will not achieve recovery. Only a painful recognition of the link between land use, habitat and fish will bring us there. To restore native trout populations requires strong medicine that many may find bitter. Everything else is just window dressing. In fairness, loggers, miners, grazers, drillers, OHV users, developers and others who engage in activities in East Slope watersheds need to feel the pain anglers currently do and make the changes necessary to allow trout populations to recover.

There is an old Arab philosophy about health which goes: health is the digit one (1), love is zero (0), glory is zero (0), and success is zero (0). Put the one of health beside the others and you are rich (1000). Without the one of health, everything is zero. This can be modified into a fish context. Habitat is digit one, catch and release is zero, stocking is zero, barbless hooks are zero, seasonal closures are zero and bait bans are zero. Put the one of habitat beside the others and you have abundant, healthy fish populations. But without the one of habitat everything else is zero. We would all be wise to remember this.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

Posted in Alberta, Conservation, Environment, Fishing, Lorne Fitch | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Remembering Old Friends

[Note: The following was first published in the September 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

“The older you get, Don, the more of these you’ll attend,” observed one of my mentors many years ago now. He was approaching retirement age and was about to leave for the funeral of one of his old friends. Since I am now past that mentor’s age, and indeed saw his own passing, I have to agree—if you survive this life long enough, one of the prices you pay is seeing more of your friends and colleagues predecease you.

Some passings have more impact than others, depending on how well you knew the individual and the experiences you shared. Like most people my age, I have had many friends over the years, from grade school chums through college buddies to work colleagues and neighbors. However, the ones whose friendships I’ve most cherished are those with whom I’ve shared some intense life-changing events. Many of those events occurred outdoors.

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Mount Rainier is a dormant volcano in Washington State with the largest mass of glaciers in the contiguous United States.

For example, my wife Betty and I were recently informed that one of our friends from many decades ago had died quite suddenly and the family was planning a memorial for him at the place where we worked, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State. There, Randy and I had worked for the U.S. National Park Service and shared a love for the park with our fellow workers. These were summer jobs often taken by students in their early 20s. They were custom built for people considering careers in the outdoors, and I felt very lucky to have landed one, as did my new colleagues. Many of us worked several seasons at the park and became fast friends. Some of us met our life partners there, making the park a special place indeed.

Although we initially made excuses for not attending the memorial, Betty and I eventually decided to make the trip. Randy needed a good send off, there would be several old friends there, and seeing the park again would rekindle some memories and stories that should not be forgotten. We were not disappointed. Even though we had worked with these people only for a few years out of our lives, their friendships had become a part of who we are.

One of the many subjects we discussed, while hiking trails and viewing the unique landscapes, was why did our times together in this place mean so much to us. The consensus boiled down to our youth, the jobs we were doing and the place we were doing them in.

Being young adults, we were searching for our places in the world. The outdoors beckoned us all, but how were we going to fit that passion into our lives, as a career or a pastime? It was a pivotal time for all of us.

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Mountain rescues were part of the job.

1968 Meredith-SCowlitzChimneyRescue-2

Our jobs taught us about the responsibility associated with public service. I served as a seasonal ranger and was trained in forest fire control, mountain rescue, law enforcement and public relations. When I first came to the park, I had a budding interest in mountain climbing that I had developed when I hiked in the Sierra Nevada as a teenager. Climbing Mt. Rainier (4393 m, 14,410 ft.), however, seemed out of my league. It involved climbing up steep glacial ice using specialized equipment and techniques. But now I was a member of an organization that would be called upon to rescue mountain climbers who got into trouble on a glacier. So I took the national park mountain climbing and rescue school. It was an intense week on the mountain, learning how to climb on ice and how to rescue people from crevasses, etc. At the end of the course, there was a graduation climb of The Mountain. We were all successful to the summit but more importantly we all were now members of a unique group of people who have shared a special experience. I was hooked. I wanted to climb some more.

1967 Meredith-Bergschrund

Ice climbing requires specialized tools and techniques.

Fortunately, I worked with a group of people who also wanted to climb. The result was I ended up climbing Rainier three times and going with my climbing friends to climb peaks elsewhere in the Cascade Mountains. I also participated in several mountain rescues. Mountain climbing, especially on ice, is all about teamwork and trusting your partners with your life and they trusting you with theirs. These experiences moulded our characters and bound us together like few other friendships.

When I came to Alberta to pursue graduate studies in wildlife biology, I met other students with similar interests and aspirations from all over North America and parts of the rest of the world. Many hunted and fished, as well as hiked and backpacked. Betty and I fit right in. While we worked at school and in the field, we made many friends with whom we shared many interesting experiences that further defined who we are.

Like the national park jobs, our university work only lasted a few years, after which we each went our separate ways in pursuit of various careers. My first job out of school was working for a biological consulting firm in the Arctic. After that I bounced around various jobs as the economy waxed and waned. Friends came and went, but the most enduring friendships were those with whom we shared outdoor pursuits. Some helped us build our house, and we helped build theirs. Others backpacked, hunted or fished with us.

2007-09 Meredith-MooseDown

Shared outdoor experiences bind friends together.

Some of the longest friendships have come from our hunting experiences. Our moose-hunting group has been hunting together for over 45 years. Sitting around a campfire at night telling the stories and legends that have grown from our experiences is a ritual that never gets old.

One of the boons to keeping us connected with our friends over the years has been the Internet, mostly e-mail. Before that came along in the 1990s, we communicated by postal mail and telephone. E-mail allowed us to easily keep up with each other in real time, and arrange face-to-face reunions and other get-togethers where we put our pasts into perspective.

Never Forget Your Friends
After our trip to Mt. Rainier this summer, one of our friends sent us one of those stories that float about the Internet without attribution. I usually don’t pass these stories along but this one struck a chord, especially after what we experienced. The following is a brief paraphrase:

A father tells his newly wed son that although he’s embarking on a new phase of life, he should never forget his friends. Time passes, life goes on, children grow up, distance separates, jobs come and go, desires weaken, people disappoint, the heart breaks and parents die. But true friends are always there, no matter how long or how many miles away they may be.
A friend is never more distant than a phone. If need be, they will intervene in your favor or steer you down a better path.
When we started down this adventure called Life, we did not know the incredible joys or sorrows ahead or how much we would need from each other. Love your spouse, your parents and your children, but keep a group of good friends.

Sometimes in the hurly-burly lives we lead, we forget to remember how we got where we are and who helped us get there. It never hurts to reconnect and catch-up.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, Fishing, General, Hunting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wetlands and Water

[Note: The following was first published in the August 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

During the recent discussions about returning catch-and-keep fishing to some of our Alberta lakes, the issues of loss of habitat and water quality came up. Although the Alberta government likes to blame its catch-and-release policy on too many anglers chasing too few fish, in reality loss of habitat plays as big or bigger a role.

Wabamun wetland

Wetlands are complex plant and animal communities that clean water and provide many other environmental services. A wetland’s riparian and emergent vegetation removes nutrients from water before it is released to a lake or stream.

In lakes and streams habitat and water quality go hand-in-hand. If habitat is poor, chances are the water quality is also poor in terms of increased nutrients (e.g., phosphorus, nitrogen), cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms and low oxygen, etc. The water quality of a lake is largely determined by the quality of the water entering that lake. If that water passes over disturbed land, it will carry silt and dissolved nutrients into the lake, silting-in fish habitat and increasing the lake water’s nutrient load. On the other hand, if the water passes through well-vegetated areas, where sediment is filtered out and the plants take up nutrients, less sediment and nutrients enter the lake.

Wetlands
However, if the overland water enters a wetland prior to going to a stream or lake, the quality of the water entering that water body can very much improve. So, what are wetlands? According to Wetlands Alberta (www.wetlandsalberta.ca), “Wetlands are low-lying areas of land covered by water long enough to support aquatic plants and wildlife for part of their life cycle.” Their diverse communities of plants and animals provide many services to the environment that includes water filtration and storage, ground water recharging, carbon sequestration, and habitat for a host of plants and wildlife species that contribute to the biodiversity of a landscape.

wetland fill

A landholder fills and blocks a wetland on crown land to build a road to the lakeshore.

The problem is that over the decades many wetlands have been drained and covered over to increase agricultural production or make way for development. Many people considered wetlands to be “wastelands” that should be drained and put into “useful service,” not realizing the services the wetlands were already providing. This has been especially true around our recreational lakes, where cottage and other development have destroyed or seriously impaired many wetlands. As we’ve learned the limits of our resources, the value of wetlands is finally being factored into decisions about land use. Alberta’s Water Act, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, and the Public Lands Act protect wetlands on both public and private land. If someone wishes to drain or otherwise alter a wetland, they must contact the appropriate authorities. The problem has been that many landholders don’t realize their responsibility and have altered their wetlands (or sometimes crown wetlands) without obtaining the required approvals. Although the violator might be charged, the damage is done.

Wetlands Alberta (a partnership of Alberta Environment and Parks, Ducks Unlimited Canada and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan Partnership) recognizes five types of wetlands divided into two broad classifications: peatlands and non-peatlands. Peatlands are found most often in northern Alberta and parts of the parkland, foothills and mountains. Non-peatlands are found mostly in the prairies and parkland regions.

Peatlands
About 20% of the surface area of Alberta is covered by wetlands and over 90% of these are peatlands. Peat is partially decomposed organic vegetation whose decomposition has slowed or stopped because of lack of oxygen. As a result, the peat accumulates over the years. Many peatlands have existed for thousands of years and are one of the most important carbon sinks, where carbon is stored and not released back into the atmosphere.

Bogs are peat-covered wetlands where the surface water is acidic as a result of decaying plant material and poor drainage. Shrubs and sphagnum mosses are the main vegetation types overlying the peat. However, some bogs may support trees, such as black spruce and tamarack.

Fens are peatlands fed by flowing ground water. The water is basic (high pH) as opposed to the acid conditions found in bogs. Fen vegetation tends to be dominated by sedges but may also include trees and shrubs.

Non-peatlands
Potholes, ponds and standing water along rivers and lakeshores are classified as Shallow Open-water Ponds. These are usually small bodies of standing or flowing water, ringed with cattails and other emergent vegetation. Some may represent the stage of a lake transforming into a marsh.

Marshes are wetlands that are permanently or occasionally covered by slow moving or standing water. Rich in nutrients, marshes support a variety of cattails, rushes, reeds and sedges because water remains in the root zone of these plants most of the growing season.

Found in both peatlands and non-peatlands, swamps are low-lying pieces of land that are flooded either seasonally or for long periods of time and contain shrubs and trees that prefer moist conditions. They are nutrient rich and productive in terms of supporting many plant and animal species.

Value of Wetlands to Lakes and Streams
Clean water is important for fish, wildlife and people. Wetlands clean water by slowing it down, allowing silt and other suspended solids to drop out, and by filtering it—passing the water through a filter of mosses, peat, soil and plant roots. The roots extract nutrients from the water.

Wetlands reduce the effects of drought by storing water and providing sources of water for wildlife and livestock. They also recharge groundwater by passing some of the stored water into aquifers. By storing runoff water and slowly releasing it, wetlands reduce the effects of flooding.

Anyone who has ever visited a wetland will realize their value in providing habitats for a variety of wildlife, from beavers, muskrats, waterfowl and perching birds to frogs, toads, fish and insects, just to name a few. Wetland communities are diverse and complex. Many other animals from the surrounding uplands frequent wetlands to find food, water, and relief from the summer heat, including moose, deer, foxes, weasels and mink.

OHV damage to wetland

Damage to wetlands comes in many forms. Here an off-highway vehicle damaged a wetland protecting Wabamun Lake.

As in the forests and fields that surround them, wetland vegetation sequesters carbon by taking carbon dioxide from the air, storing the carbon in the plants and eventually in the soil and peat. This valuable service helps slow global warming and climate change. Indeed, our warming climate will be the biggest threat to the viability of our lakes and streams over the next decades.

Wetland Policy
In 2012 the Alberta government released its Wetland Policy (www.wetlandpolicy.ca) in which the government outlined the importance of protecting wetlands and how that should be accomplished. Not an easy task given the various demands for resources and development on both crown and private lands, and the various jurisdictions that are involved in regulating land development. As with all policies and legislation, the Wetland Policy is not much good unless it’s acted upon and enforced.

At the Wabamun Watershed Management Council, we’ve seen several examples of altered or abused wetlands around Wabamun Lake. Most of these are the result of people not knowing the rules and the consequences of the damage they do. But why don’t they know? Mainly because our provincial and municipal governments fail to inform people of these rules, especially when they apply for permits to build or clear land. Many people still believe wetlands are wastelands and that they should be filled in, especially on their own land. However, land ownership comes with certain responsibilities, including being a steward of that land and ensuring the quality of the water that passes through it.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, Climate Change, Environment, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Generations and Attitudes

[Note: The following was first published in the July 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

We’ve all heard the names used to identify different generations, such as “Baby Boomers” or “Millennials.” Giving names to generations is a convenient way for sociologists and demographers to roughly describe groups of people of similar ages, cultures and life experiences. Different generations have different values and attitudes and sometimes they come into conflict.

WWII Generation
My parents were born in the early 1910s in what demographers now call the WWII Generation (born roughly from 1900 to the mid 1920s). This generation survived the Great Depression and provided the bulk of people who fought in the Second World War or who contributed to that war effort.

2006-06 Meredith-Rainbow-MaligneLk

Catching fish just to release them was not a consideration for earlier generations.

My dad grew up in a rural farming community. He learned to fish and hunt when those activities were considered just another way to get food on the table. He wasn’t much of a hunter but fishing was his passion. My mother also grew up in a rural community. She didn’t fish or hunt but appreciated the wild fish and game that was brought to the table. The two met as schoolteachers during the Depression and knew they were lucky to have jobs.

Silent Generation
My brother came along in the generation that followed: the Silent Generation (born mid 1920s to mid 1940s). It’s called the Silent Generation because members, in general, concentrated on their careers and made few waves in terms of social activism, unlike the generation that followed. They saw their parents struggle in the Depression and war years and understood the value of having and keeping a job.

Demographers admit these names and descriptions are broad generalizations that often don’t fit particular individuals. For example, my brother (now deceased) never did concentrate on a single career for any significant length of time. He moved from job to job as his interests changed.

Boomers
I was born 10 years after my brother, after the end of World War II. That places me on the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation (born mid 1940s to mid 1960s), so called because we were large in number as a result of being born in unprecedented post-war prosperity. Jobs were plentiful for our parents and if we were middle class or better we had access to much material wealth and good educations. We also benefited from the social programs that governments developed as a result of the Depression, such as employment insurance, workers’ compensation and government pensions. However, many of us also saw the inequities in society and became social activists, questioning many of the things our parents believed. It was the boomers who spearheaded the start of the environmental movement.

Like my brother, I didn’t conform to many of my generation’s so-called norms, although I did take full advantage of the educational opportunities available. While I saw a lot of social activism on college campuses and gave moral support to some of it, I did not take part in the activism.

Both my brother and I inherited our father’s passion for fishing. Some of my best memories of that time involve fishing with my brother and dad on a lake or the ocean. Although we didn’t have to fish or hunt to feed our family, it was understood that any fish caught and kept was to be eaten. Catching fish just to release them was not a consideration.

By this time our family had moved to the city. My dad ensured we each went into the Boy Scouts where we would get outdoors and learn some life skills and self-reliance. In those days, the Scouts were very outdoors oriented. Our local troop camped regularly, where we learned woodcraft, orienteering, hiking and canoeing.

Along his way my brother developed an interest in hunting. He passed that interest on to me and encouraged me to take a hunter training and firearms course.

Gen X
We boomers gave rise to the next generation, what demographers now call Generation X (born mid 1960s to early 1980s). That creative name was assigned because for many years demographers didn’t know how to describe this generation and X in science refers to an unknown. Gen X is a lot smaller in number than the Boomers because the birth control pill allowed more boomer women to pursue careers, postpone child bearing and have fewer children. These children were often left on their own after school before their parents came home from work, and longer during the summers, causing them not to get as much adult supervision as previous generations.

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Fishing and hunting opportunities require advocates willing to step up and protect wild places.

Again, these are broad generalizations. But Gen Xers did not receive the outdoor experiences previous generations did. First, many boomer families moved to cities for employment. Second, often both parents worked and there was less time for getting outside the cities. As a result, the proportion of the population that bought hunting and fishing licences kept dropping. As well, our growing human population placed more demands on resources. To compensate, governments introduced the concept of catch-and-release fishing, as well as lotteries for hunting licences. Gen X was the first to grow up during the rapid technological advances we see today. They accepted home computers and the Internet as part of life more readily than many Boomers.

Millennials and Generation Z
The Millennials (or Generation Y, born early 1980s to mid 1990s) are distinguished from Gen X mainly by their complete emersion—almost from birth—in digital technology, accepting smart phones, tablets, Wi-Fi, social media and the instant gratification they provide. Generation Z (born mid 1990s to mid 2010s) is the last generation described to date. Because its characteristics are still being defined, this generation is mainly noted for being the largest in our North American population, outnumbering Boomers. Both these generations have less time to connect with the natural world than did their elders.

Each of these six generations is distinguished from the previous one by the ever-increasing pace of social change their members have experienced. What used to work for one group in terms of interacting with people, finding a job or having enough time to participate in outdoor activities might no longer work for the next group.

It’s easy for older generations to criticize younger ones for not having the same values or not helping out. I’ve sat in meetings of non-profit organizations and heard people complain about the lack of young people stepping up to participate, and I have to admit I’ve sometimes joined that chorus. But is it fair? Maybe the organizations need to be communicating better with the people they want to step up.

bha-logoA good example is what happened with the formation of the Alberta Chapter of the Backcountry Hunter and Anglers. At the organizing meetings I was impressed with the number of young, keen and motivated people that showed up to take leadership roles and help make a difference for Alberta’s wild places. Many had been hunting and fishing for much of their lives but had not bothered to join the Alberta Fish and Game Association. When I asked why, they stated they didn’t feel the AFGA represented their values with regard to wild places. They felt the government needed to hear from hunters and anglers who appreciate the solemnity of a true wilderness experience. Perhaps getting people to step up begins with asking the right questions.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, General | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments